by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s, Member of General Synod and Vice-Chair of the Ozanne Foundation
What do the words ‘biblical’ and ‘orthodox’ mean for you?
I trained at theological college (a very long time ago) with a particular calling to serve in the inner-city. I had a year’s placement in a city parish in Nottingham, and thought I was prepared for what lay ahead. But when I went to inner-city Deptford in London, I started to discover the adjectives I hadn’t been aware of before. In modern-day terms, I became aware of my unconscious bias.
At college, there were adjectives for specific perspectives on theology, such as ‘black’, ‘third-world’, or ‘feminist’. But what I’d failed to notice (Foucault and Derrida weren’t in vogue in my theological world) was that that there was no such thing as theology without adjectives. In the same way that there’s no context-less human being – we have a family, a nationality and a particular culture – so the way we do our thinking about God inevitably has adjectives in front of it.
Because I was a white, evangelical, middle-class, suburban, prosperous, educated, logical, male, heterosexual Christian, I hadn’t noticed that my theology (mostly) and my teachers (as far as I knew) were white, evangelical, middle-class, suburban, prosperous, educated, emotional, male, heterosexual… It was when I went to minister in a multi-cultural, unchurched, working-class, inner-city, poor, non-intellectual, disordered, stressful environment that I discovered what my adjectives were, and had to re-evaluate the theology I’d learnt which had prepared me for a very different culture.
That didn’t mean leaving the Christian gospel behind. But it did mean going back to Scripture to find other ways of reading and being read by the text, rather than starting with what people like me said the text was going to mean. And that required leaving behind some of my adjectives, the inherited culture I’d taken for granted: for example, having a very restricted view of who should receive communion based on a particular interpretation of what’ worthy reception’ meant in 1 Corinthians 11. It’s been uncomfortable and liberating over the years to discover more of what it means to follow Jesus Christ in the light of my comfortable assumptions being forcibly questioned by God’s reality.
Which brings me back to ‘biblical’ and ‘orthodox’: two adjectives which are apparently of universal meaning, but which are being used as markers of a particular, culturally conditioned theological perspective for those who have views which they might describe as ‘traditional’. The adjectives aren’t factual statements, but shorthand for perspectives which agree with a particular view.
The fact that people like me, who believe in the importance of Scripture and tradition and the need to engage with them, disagree with certain views (notably about women in ministry and marriage, and same-sex partnerships) must in the view of others make us unbiblical and unorthodox, ‘false teachers’. Whereas from my perspective (whatever adjectives you might give that depends on where you stand – I go for ‘inclusive and challenging’) I would agree on much of what ‘biblical and orthodox’ Christians believe as the fundamentals of the Christian gospel, but see beliefs around gender and sexuality as needing to be dynamic and eschatological (forward-oriented) rather than unchanging and creation-oriented: what is God calling us to become in Jesus Christ?
Another adjective which gets bandied about is ‘revisionist’. But revision and reform today can become tradition tomorrow. Look up the histories of Christian doctrine regarding violence, contraception, clerical power and clerical celibacy, for example, let alone the history of the Reformation.
It is of course possible for the Church to compromise with the ‘spirit of the age’ and deviate from its Christian roots. My predecessor, WR Inge, wrote shortly after becoming Dean of St Paul’s in 1911, ‘If you marry the spirit of your own generation you will be a widow in the next’. But that cuts both ways; it’s equally possible for Christians to cling on to the cultures of past generations and refuse to change when it’s needed. When I was in training for ministry, our college principal Colin Buchanan used to say that the Church was only different from the world because it was ten years behind. I think he was being rather generous: it’s usually much further behind than that.
Holding onto the Christian culture of the 1950s, or of the 1550s, as if it were divinely inspired and the yardstick of what is ‘biblical’ and ‘orthodox’ is as mistaken as regarding Scripture and tradition as outmoded. The soon to be unveiled Learning in Love and Faith project in the Church of England is an opportunity to engage with the complexities of this in regard to human sexuality, and an opportunity for all of us to face what we will find to be uncomfortable realities, in order to unearth those adjectives we hadn’t noticed we possess, and use them with more care regarding ourselves and others.
It will be both biblical and orthodox to seek God in Christ by engaging in this self-critical encounter together…